Under the Pole in a Submarine (Aug, 1929)

What do you do when your sub gets stuck under the icepack? Get out and pull of course!

Actually that picture kind of reminds me of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride at Disney Land.

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Under the Pole in a Submarine


famous Polar Explorer “The greatest adventure in the world”—no milder sentence than this can adequately describe the daring plan of penetrating beneath arctic waters in a submarine, as set forth in these pages by Capt. Sir Hubert Wilkins, the famous Polar explorer who conceived the idea. Perilous and fantastic as the scheme sounds, the odds against the daring adventurers are not so formidable as the layman supposes.

AIRSHIPS and airplanes have conquered the arctic air, but steamships have not conquered the arctic ice. Within a hundred years two hundred or more ships have been lost in battle with the grinding pack ice. They have been caught in the arms of the merciless floes, and, splintered and crushed, have dropped into the maw of the arctic basin. Many brave crews have followed their mangled ships to the bottom of the Arctic ocean. A few, more fortunate, more experienced or cautious, have escaped to tell tales of misfortune, hardship and privation.

No surface ship can push its way through the tough ice pack or withstand the pressure of the weighty wind-driven floes. Not even the sturdy ice breaker, Krassin, with its marvelous mechanical aids, which crashed its way through the edge of the pack to rescue Nobile and the Italia’s crew, could expect to conquer the mid-arctic ice or make a trans-arctic journey.

Statesmen and business men have for years sought a shorter sea route from Europe to Asia, from Alaska to Florida, from Seattle to New York and other places. By using the arctic route the distance be- tween these places would be shortened. It is very much shorter from Seattle to New York via the Bering Straits than it is via the Panama Canal.

But the search for a navigable northwest or northeast passage has so far been in vain. It has cost hundreds of lives and millions of dollars. Men in ships have circumnavigated the Arctic ocean, yet a practical route for surface vessels has not been found. The potential value of a northwest passage is still as great as it ever was, but those of us who know the arctic do not believe that a surface route is practical.

With mechanically perfect machines, Byrd and Amundsen and Eielson and I have proved that flying machines can make use of the shorter arctic route and by flying over a great circle course shorten, by nearly fifty per cent, the time and distance of travel between northern towns. Passengers will soon fly over the arctic as safely as they now fly over Death Valley and the snow clad high Sierras, but sea-going vessels will be needed to carry the heavy and bulky loads of grain from the fertile areas in northern Russia, Alaska and Canada which will be produced as soon as some safe economic method of transporting it is introduced. Modern mechanics have helped us in flying over the arctic ice. Years of experience have proved that we cannot expect to conquer the ice itself so we look to modern mechanics to aid us in avoiding the ice and conquering the arctic sea.

Submarine Is the Solution The economic possibilities of the submarine are as yet little understood. As cargo carriers they could open up routes of importance to every country in the northern hemisphere. The distance between Liverpool and Yokahama via the arctic is 6,750 miles as compared to 12,250 miles via the Panama and 11,100 miles via the Suez Canal. For vessels of equal size and speed the saving of time on the arctic route would be more than sixty days on a round trip and the earning power of the northern vessel would be a hundred per cent more than the other.

Submarine hull construction has improved very little since Simon Lake in 1883 built his first commercial submarine, but modern mechanics have been applied to the propulsion and operation of the vessel. Heavy duty Diesel engines have taken the place of steam and light, high-speed gasoline motors. Electric batteries have been improved to give long service and admit a comparatively rapid re-charge. Some military submarines now in operation have an independent cruising range of more than ten thousand miles.

The size of a submarine is not more limited than the size of a surface vessel and, as a matter of fact, their economic efficiency increases with size within certain limits. Plans for a thirteen thousand ton submarine have been drawn up and approved. It would be possible to build them even larger. Such submarines would naturally not go directly across the Arctic ocean, but skirting along the comparatively ice free coastal water, would submerge to pass the solid strips of ice which would stop the progress of a surface vessel.

It would, nevertheless, on a voyage of discovery, be possible to go “beneath” the north pole and across the Arctic ocean. It may seem to the uninitiated that there are certain insurmountable difficulties in the way of under-ice navigation, but a close study of the conditions proves it to be easily possible to avoid the dangers and overcome all {he difficulties. In the first place the arctic temperatures in summer are well above freezing point. The submarine would operate in water of more or less constant temperature. Insulation of the walls of the submarine decreases condensation and by keeping the interior as cool as possible no inconvenience would be experienced through dampness in the vessel.

Modern submarines can submerge to a depth of three hundred feet. Nansen in his description of his arctic drift states that he did not see ice more than fourteen feet under water. Peary and Stefansson claim that they have never seen ice aground in water more than a hundred and twenty feet deep. There are no large icebergs in the Arctic ocean. The icebergs found in the north Atlantic come from the southern part of Greenland.

The arctic, even in the depths of winter, is not covered with an unbroken blanket of ice. Amundsen in the early spring of 1925 landed his flying boats in water within ninety miles of the pole. It has been observed by those who have in late winter and spring flown thousands of miles over the arctic pack that there are open leads or newly frozen water in patches within twenty-five miles of any given point in the Arctic ocean. It is our belief that in late summer we could on a trip from Spitsbergen to Bering Sea, or vice versa, travel fully twenty-five per cent of the way in open water.

It would appear to be possible to come to the surface in ice-free water at least every thirty miles, but strange as it may seem, that fact would possibly present our greatest danger. The arctic ice is frequently if not always in motion. An open lead is ever changing its shape and size. It may disappear at any moment. An under-ice vessel would have to be prepared to make the whole of the journey under ice if necessary. Yet no one would dream of making a non-stop submerged trip across the two thousand miles of the Arctic ocean.

Modern submarines are operated on the surface by Diesel engines. Submerged, they are driven by electric motors and batteries. With one full charge the vessel can operate at a certain speed for a limited time; then the batteries must be recharged. The greater the speed the quicker the power of the battery is expended and experience has proved that an economical speed for submarines submerged is about four or five miles an hour. This slow progress is a means of protection in submarine exploration. With suitable buffer arrangements small submarines could run full speed ahead into a solid obstruction and sustain no damage.

Naturally, in preparing for a submarine trip such as I propose for the summer of 1930 we would provide for every emer- gency. The Lake type of submarine we propose to use is fitted with one of the most important safety devices. That is two adjoining airtight chambers, the bottom of one, being part of the bottom of the vessel, being a hinged door. This affords a means of leaving the submerged vessel in a diver’s suit and effecting repairs or doing work outside the vessel.

The manipulation is simple. The chambers are filled with air to a pressure equalizing the pressure of the water on the out- side. The pressure at depths to a hundred feet is not oppressive to humans. The men can then open the floor of the submarine and step into the water and, carrying an air line and a guide rope, move freely about at their work. It may be that a propeller blade will need replacement or a minute investigation of the under surface of the ice be made; even a sample of the sea bottom in shallow water could be collected.

This device will also serve in several methods of gaining access to the open air if it is found necessary to break through the ice. The diver can attach explosives to the bottom of the ice, then re-enter the submarine, move away to a safe distance and follow a guide line back to the place after the explosive has done its work.

A diver with freedom of movement on top or near a submarine could manipulate a chemical agent such as thermite or calcium carbide and melt a hole through the thin sea ice. While the ice may in parts be fifteen or more feet in thickness, in late summer we believe it possible to find ice less than three feet thick. Much less force will be required to burst the ice from the bottom than from the top, and in summer, when the water temperature is well above freezing, little extra temperature will be needed to melt a hole sufficiently large to accommodate a small conning tower.

A feature we propose to use for ‘protection and for determining thickness of the ice and the open leads is a feeling arm connected through a universal joint to the top of the submarine. This arm will extend thirty or forty feet above the top of the vessel and by means of a governing spring keep the submarine—which will at all times have positive buoyancy, or a tendency to rise—at an even distance beneath the surface of the ice. It is not expected that the under surface of the ice will be smooth but the irregularities, except in rare instances, will not be great and in no case so great as to allow the body of the submarine to strike a projecting tongue or foot of ice.

“Jumping Bar” Protects Sub As a double precaution against this possibility the upper side of the vessel will be protected by a resilient jumping bar or skate. This skate or sled runner will, if the feeling arm fails, protect the hull from contact with the ice above.

It is intended to provide a mechanical means of access to free air from under even twenty feet or more of ice. Two seven inch drills, one forward and one aft arid operated from the inside of the vessel, can be used to drill through the ice. They will operate through a stuffing box as does the propeller shaft. The drills themselves will be cored—that is the centre section will be removable and when the hole is drilled the cores can be removed, leaving two six inch pipes projecting through the ice. These will serve as an intake and an exhaust for the engines. Lying peacefully beneath the ice, like a fly on a ceiling, it will be possible to recharge the batteries and proceed.

This, in fact, would be a safer method than coming up into an open lead. It may be thought that a submarine is “blind” when submerged, but experience has shown that in clear water—in the arctic the water is exceptionally clear—it is possible in daylight to see through the water for a distance of fifty yards or more. During the summer in the arctic it is daylight the whole season long; the sun at that time in those latitudes is never below the horizon. Even so, as a precaution, a highly penetrating concentrated light will be thrown forward and up- ward from the vessel and so enable the operator to observe the nature of things in the near vicinity.

Apart from the economic value of demonstrating the possible use of commercial submarines in arctic waters, the trip under the north pole and across the Arctic ocean will afford the maximum opportunity for carrying out scientific investigations of great importance. Instruments for finding the depths by sound and manual sounding machines will be carried. These will afford protection from running aground in shallow water. The submarine also has wheels on its bottom. A pendulum apparatus can be operated as the vessel is in motion and the specific gravity of the earth’s crust at its upper end be recorded.

To Solve Scientific Mysteries A gyro compass will give us some valuable information as to the magnetic differences as we cross the top of the world, far north of the magnetic pole itself. The earth inductor compass and the ordinary ship’s compass will serve for navigation if necessary. We can observe the direction,, force, temperature and content of the cur-, rents in the Arctic ocean and collect such biological life as may be found. Who knows what weird creatures may. exist beneath that blanket of arctic ice? It will be possible to observe and photograph the life through the clear glass windows of the submarine.

During periods of rest and while recharging batteries we can fix our position by astronomical methods and be in touch daily by wireless with all parts of the world. From a captive balloon we can photograph conditions below. There are few troublesome fogs in late summer such as there are in the arctic spring. It is even possible that we might broadcast speech from beneath the arctic sea to Commander Byrd on top of the antarctic continent. We can observe the midsummer ice and weather conditions and furnish information of extreme value to weather forecasters. But best of all we can demonstrate that the mechanical ingenuity of man has overcome another of the difficulties imposed by nature upon him.

  1. Hirudinea says: March 31, 20113:40 pm

    Full speed ahead, oxygen is for wimps!

  2. Jari says: March 31, 20113:55 pm

    Hydraulic feelers (p43) goes where?

  3. Mike says: March 31, 20116:08 pm

    Hirindinea, the drills will drill holes in the ice to get oxygen, and recharge the batteries.

  4. Mike says: March 31, 20116:10 pm

    Jari, Maybe they are like curb feelers lets you know when you are good and trapped under the ice.

  5. Stephen says: April 1, 20116:20 am

    There’s a long article about this on the Wikipedia; indeed, this expedition has been mentioned here before. It all went very badly, both engines failed on the way out, and by the time they got to the Arctic Wilkins discovered there were no diving planes, so there was no diving. They did some experiments in the high Arctic, but there was no sailing under the ice as described here. Indeed, without sonar I doubt it could have been done safely.

  6. Scott Smith says: April 2, 20118:33 pm

    I’ve been on this submarine! It’s in Groton Connecticut.

  7. Wes T. says: April 8, 201111:27 am

    This is the first Nautilus. Not the same one that went under the ice in the late ’50s. If I am not mistaken, Wilkins developed troubles and I think it may have eventually been scrapped in Europe. The one on his expedition was a former US sub, one of the very early ones, I forget the hull number.

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